Vanessa Winship’s biggest UK show to date, the first UK retrospective of Dorothea Lange, and a huge group exhibition including work by photographers such as Mary Ellen Mark, Dayanita Singh, Alec Soth, Chris Steele-Perkins, Daido Moriyama, Diane Arbus, Pieter Hugo, Bruce Davidson, and Boris Mikhailov – they’re all coming up this year at London’s Barbican Centre, in a season titled The Art of Change.
“Everyone talks about 1968 as the year of revolution, but America was burning in 1967,” says Mark Sealy. “There were many riots and disturbances that year, but Parks was looking at intimacy, not running across the country shooting riots. He was telling history through these very personal stories.” He’s talking about Gordon Parks, the feted documentary photographer and film-maker (best known for directing Shaft). In particular Sealy is talking about Parks’ work with the Fontenelles, a family living in poverty in Harlem in 1967 that Parks photographed for a 16-page story published in Life in March ’68.
“There are two important things about this show,” says Clément Chéroux, senior curator of photography at SFMOMA. “First, the quantity of work – more than 300 photographs, quite a large selection, because we were able to get support from most of the big institutions – MOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Canada, the Musée du Quai Branly and so on, and private collections from around the world. Second, is the fact that it is arranged thematically rather than chronologically. Usually when you look at important retrospectives they are chronological, but we organised by theme because we wanted to organise it around Evans’ passion for the vernacular. He was fascinated with vernacular culture.”
Elliot Erwitt was just 22 years old when he was commissioned to shoot Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania by the legendary Roy Stryker in 1950. Stryker had won fame and lasting respect for his work with the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, commissioning photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans to shoot America’s rural heartland at the height of the Depression; by 1950 he was working with a new organisation, the Pittsburgh Photographic Library, charged with shooting the formerly industrial, notoriously polluted city as it transformed into a modern metropolis. Stryker had met Erwitt when the youngster was still studying in New York, and had commissioned him to work on a Standard Oil project alongside photographers such as Berenice Abbott, Gordon Parks and Russell Lee. The young image-maker must have impressed him because, when invited to document Pittsburgh by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Stryker commissioned Erwitt and – unusually for him – gave him free reign to shoot what he liked. Erwitt shot on the project for a year, until he was drafted into …